Power, peace, and space in Africa

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Franzisca Zanker tell us about her work with Claudia Simons and Andreas Mehler, which focuses on the local dimensions of power-sharing in Africa. A fuller account of this research is available in African Affairs.

From Angola to Sierra Leone, power sharing has become an increasingly popular tool for peacebuilding on the African content. The type, extent and implementation of power-sharing varies from the very superficial (Djibouti) to the detailed (Burundi). Scholars are still divided on how useful power sharing is in ensuring sustainable peace in formerly divided societies. For the most part, research has focused on the national elite-level. Our research project has decided to approach the topic from a different angle: the local level. How effective are power-sharing agreements when considered from former hotspots of violence far away from the nation’s capital and elites? In what ways are such agreements adapted and what does this mean for peacefulness in these places? We studied eight so-called ‘local arenas’ in four countries – Burundi, DRC, Liberia and Kenya – to find out.

The results were surprising. We realised that including local actors or issues is not necessary for local-level peacefulness in countries like Burundi and Liberia, and can even have disastrous effects like in the DRC. Whilst this pertained only to the short-term, and does not exclude the long-term need to address grievances, the findings still left us puzzled. It led us to reconsider the definition and meaning of power sharing, focusing especially on one type of power sharing thought to be particularly useful for conflict mitigation, yet rarely applied: territorial power-sharing.

In a recent article published in African Affairs, Andreas Mehler, Claudia Simons and I argue that the concept of territorial power sharing needs to be broadened beyond decentralisation or federalism in order to account for the manifold informal or indirect manifestations of such arrangements. We show that territorial power sharing is in fact present in many African states, but that it is typically overlooked because of its informal nature. These more subtle types of power sharing are often tied to histories of space and power in the region.

Let’s take Liberia as an example. In the small country of Liberia, power has always been concentrated in the capital. Controlling the periphery was never important, despite the widespread availability of natural resources. Unsurprisingly therefore, no formal elements of territorial power sharing were incorporated into the peace agreement signed in 2003 by the three conflict parties. During the final phases of a war, however, power relations were reconfigured in a number of different spaces, not least because forced displacement brought a different ethnic composition to a number of localities. These shifts altered established modes of formal and informal governance. Local power-sharing arrangements in this context would have allowed for a degree of inclusion in the midst of change, avoiding any risks related to the creation of a systematically marginalised population. Did local elites of warring groups in former hotspots of violent conflict agree to share power informally when the national settlement had been signed? In the Liberian case, the answer has often been no.

In the border-town of Ganta, in north-eastern Liberia, land conflict between the minority group of Mandingos and the majority groups of Manos and Gios continues to simmer. The latter argue that the Mandingos never gained rightful titles to the land that they are now claiming. Moreover, the Madingos lost any moral standing with other ethnic groups in the locality after Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy – a rebel group that was predominantly Madingo – destroyed the town in 2003. The Mandingos argue that this conflict over land, and their alleged exclusion from local government bodies, has left them feeling under threat. Conflict in the area has only calmed down recently in the wake of compensatory payments issued by the government .

This contrasts to Kenya, where in the town of Nakuru in the Rift Valley, one of the hotspots of the post-election violence in 2008, local politicians took it upon themselves to replicate national power-sharing arrangements in their town council. The city’s mayor is elected by the councillors. The most recent mayor (prior to the 2013 elections) was from the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and his deputy mayor (whom the mayor appoints) was a member of the opposing Party of National Unity (PNU). Prior mayors from the PNU party were likewise sure to appoint deputy-mayors from the ODM. Nakuru was the first town to have such a PNU-ODM mayoral team after the post-election violence. The eight committees in the town council were set up in a similar manner. Consequently, there was an informal replication of power balancing at the local level. Whilst this is just one example, and others may beg to differ, it supports the notion that the Kenyan centre-periphery relations remain strong as they were historically: National politics continue to affect the local level as can be shown when local elites emulate national solutions.

If we look at the history of space and power in Africa, the presence and importance of informal power-sharing should not surprise us. For a long time, governments concentrated on power over people rather than land. Whilst control over land, particularly in resource-rich zones, has steadily become more important, in many countries a paradox remains of claims to national sovereignty on the one hand and a lack of territorial control on the other. This results in informal arrangements, which can mirror formal power-sharing arrangements or completely contravene them. In cases where national sovereignty tends to be bound up with territorial control, it is likely that the informal elements of territorial power sharing mirror those of the government, as in Nakuru. When the paradox is the strongest, like in Liberia or the DRC, informal dimensions are likely to be more different from national policy, with certain groups effectively monopolising power, as in Ganta.

When looking at the spatial-political history of a country, what matters is not so much the size of the country of even governability, as Jeffrey Herbst would argue, but rather political choices made by governments. In Liberia, the formation of a ‘Governance Reform Commission’ was included in the peace agreement. Yet over a decade later, discounting the most recent delay caused by the Ebola epidemic, proposed legislation on decentralisation (the Local Government Bill) – which requires significant changes to the constitution – has still not been debated in Parliament, let alone put into law. For the time being, local power constellations are likely to continue evolving, at least in part, separately to national politics. This will have consequences for long-term peace and stability.

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